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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactChecking Trump’s MAGA Rally

In a campaign speech supporting the Republican candidate in a special House election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, President Donald Trump made several false and misleading statements on a range of topics, from drug smuggling to the stock market.

  • The president wrongly claimed to have received 52 percent of the women’s vote in the 2016 presidential election. He received 41 percent.
  • Trump said when drug dealers and smugglers are caught “they don’t even put you in jail,” adding that “you might get 30 days, 60 days, 90 days. You might get a year.” In fact, with some exceptions, major drug traffickers are subject to mandatory minimum sentences that keep them in prison for years.
  • Trump falsely claimed that “everyone” benefits — “not rich people” — from stock market gains. In 2016, only about half of U.S. households owned stocks directly or indirectly, and “the richest 10 percent of households controlled 84 percent” of all stock value, according to a paper published last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
  • Trump exaggerated when he said the 313,000 jobs gained in February “was among the best numbers ever produced in the history of our country.” Over the last 79 years, the monthly jobs gain was higher 133 times, including six times under President Obama. Among the “best numbers” were 1.1 million in September 1983 and 942,000 in March 1946.
  • The president said “a lot of steel mills are now opening up” because of his announced tariffs on imported steel. He’s right that some companies have announced they would reopen plants. But experts say other industries will lose jobs.

Trump also repeated several claims we’ve written about before on the trade deficit, the tax cut, wages and the cost of wars in the Middle East.

Women’s Vote

Several times during his speech, Trump revisited the 2016 campaign and basked in his victory — while not always getting the facts straight.

Trump, March 10: Women, women, we love you, we love you. Hey, didn’t we surprise them with women during the election? Remember, women won’t like Donald Trump. I said have I really had that kind of a problem? I don’t think so. But women won’t like Donald Trump. It will be a rough night for Donald Trump because the women won’t come out. We got 52 percent, right, 52, right. And I’m running against a woman. You know, that’s not that easy.

No, it’s not right. Trump got 52 percent of the male vote, but only 41 percent of the female vote, according to the exit polls. Hillary Clinton, the first female presidential nominee for either major party, received 54 percent of the women’s vote.

The president apparently was referring only to white women. He received 52 percent of the white women vote, while Clinton received 43 percent. But Trump received much lower percentages from minority groups, including black women (4 percent), Latino women (25 percent) and other races (31 percent).

Drug Sentences

Making a pitch for tougher drug penalties, Trump unduly minimized the existing consequences of drug smuggling, saying that when caught, “they don’t even put you in jail. They don’t do anything. But you might get 30 days, 60 days, 90 days. You might get a year.

With some exceptions, those caught smuggling substantial amounts of illegal drugs are subject to mandatory minimum sentences that keep them in prison for years.

Even lower-level drug traffickers such as couriers faced an average sentence of 8.4 years in prison in 2016 if they were subject to mandatory minimums and 4.3 years if they were among those who qualified for relief from those minimums.

Nonetheless, here’s how Trump put it:

Trump, March 10: They catch a drug dealer. They don’t even put him in jail. Think of it. You kill one person, you get the death penalty in many states or you get life imprisonment. You think of it. You kill 5,000 people with drugs because you are smuggling them in and you are making a lot of money and people are dying and they don’t even put you in jail. They don’t do anything. But you might get 30 days, 60 days, 90 days. You might get a year. 

Actually, drug smugglers face far longer prison sentences.

The level of drug smuggling described by Trump would fall under 21 U.S.C. § 841, which prohibits manufacturing, distributing or dispensing or possessing with intent to manufacture, distribute or dispense, or 21 U.S.C. § 960, which prohibits import and export of controlled substances. And both carry mandatory minimum sentences of five or 10 years based on the weight of the drugs involved.

For example, 100 grams of heroin or 500 grams of powder cocaine carries a five-year mandatory minimum, while more than 1 kilogram of heroin or 5 kilograms of powder cocaine carries a 10-year mandatory minimum prison sentence.

There are two exceptions to the mandatory minimum sentences, the U.S. Sentencing Commission explained in its October 2017 report “Mandatory Minimum Penalties for Drug Offenses in the Federal Criminal Justice System.” The first is for those who provide “substantial assistance” to authorities, typically meaning that they agree to testify against co-defendants or provide the names of their suppliers. The second is for those who qualify for a “safety valve” exception, which is available to some defendants who have a minimal criminal history, did not use or threaten violence or carry a weapon, and who were “not an organizer, leader, manager or supervisor of others or engaged in a continuing criminal enterprise.”

The U.S. Sentencing Commission breaks down the average sentence by offender function:

  • Organization leaders who faced mandatory minimums in 2016 were sentenced to an average of 15.5 years, or just over 10 years if relieved of the mandatory minimum penalty.
  • Couriers — defined as those who transport or carry drugs “with the assistance of a vehicle or other equipment — were sentenced to an average of 8.4 years in prison if they were subject to mandatory minimums and 4.3 years if they were relieved of the minimums.
  • Mules — those who transport or carry drugs “internally or on their person, often by airplane, or by walking across a border” — got an average sentence of 6.8 years if they were subject to mandatory minimums or 2.2 years if relieved of the minimum penalty. (See Figure 33 on page 50.)

“These differences may be attributable to the fact that offenders who qualify for safety valve relief are generally less culpable than other offenders and, therefore, would normally receive lower sentences on average,” wrote the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a bipartisan, independent agency located in the judicial branch of government.

The Sentencing Commission report notes that the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created the two-tier mandatory sentencing structure to target “major” and “serious” traffickers. But, the commission wrote, the minimums created by the law “often apply to offenders who perform relatively low-level functions.”

“Trump’s comment doesn’t line up with the facts,” said Ames Grawert, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

Grawert said there are perhaps some defendants in very unusual circumstances who might get a sentence of under a year, but those would be extremely rare. It is much more common, he said, for convicted drug smugglers to receive sentences better measured in years than months, he said.

Not all mules and couriers are subject to laws that carry mandatory minimums because prosecutors have some discretion in what they charge, Grawert said. In 2013, then U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder unveiled the “Smart on Crime” initiative that directed federal prosecutors to steer low-level drug cases away from mandatory minimum sentences to concentrate resources on the most serious offenders. But in May 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed that policy with a memo directing federal prosecutors  to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.”

“Nobody’s getting a so-called slap on the wrist for these kinds of offenses,” Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, which advocates criminal justice changes, told us in a phone interview.

Stock Market Gains

As he frequently does, Trump boasted about the stock market gains not only since he took office but going back to Election Day. But this time he added a new wrinkle, falsely claiming that “everyone” benefits and “not rich people.”

Trump, March 10: [T]he stock market is up almost 40 percent since Election Day. Think of that, almost 40 percent. Think of that. And, by the way, that’s not rich people. That’s for everyone.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average, made up of 30 large corporations, has increased by 28 percent during Trump’s first year, (after rising 138 percent under Obama). Trump inflates the stock rise by going back to Nov. 8, 2016, which was Election Day. Since that date, the Dow has increased 38 percent.  

More importantly, stock market gains do not benefit everyone.

In a working paper issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research in November, New York University economics professor Edward Nathan Wolff looked at household wealth trends in the United States from 1962 to 2016. In 2016, 49.3 percent of U.S. households owned stock either directly or indirectly (through mutual funds, trust funds or pension plans), Wolff wrote.

So not everyone benefits when the stock market increases.

As for “rich people,” the term used by Trump, Wolff found that stock ownership was “highly skewed” toward the wealthy.

Wolff, November 2017: The concentration of investment type assets generally was very high in 2016. Over 90 percent of the total value of stock shares, bonds, and business equity, and 85 percent of non-home real estate were held by the top 10 percent of households. Stock ownership was also highly skewed by wealth class. The top one percent of households classified by wealth owned 40 percent of all stocks in 2016, the top 10 percent 84 percent, and the top quintile 93 percent.

February Jobs Report

The president boasted about the strong February jobs report, but went too far when he claimed that it was “among the best” in history.

Trump, March 10: We have created more than 300,000 new jobs alone last month. And you saw the numbers yesterday. Yesterday’s numbers, job reports was among the best numbers ever produced in the history of our country, in the history of our country.

The economy added 313,000 jobs in February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a preliminary figure and it could be revised as the bureau receives better information.

To put the February jobs report into some context, we went to the BLS website and downloaded monthly jobs data going back to February 1939. In that 79-year period, the U.S. on average has added 125,000 jobs per month. That includes 730 months when the U.S. added jobs and 219 months when it lost jobs. The median job change during that period was an increase of 157,000.

So 313,000 is a strong number.

But the U.S. has added more than 313,000 jobs in 133 months — including six times in the six years prior to Trump taking office, ranging from 522,000 in May 2010 to 323,000 in April 2011.

Below are the top 10 biggest monthly gains since February 1939.

Largest Payroll Employment Increases
1983 September 1,115,000
1946 March 942,000
1952 August 779,000
1950 August 734,000
1946 January 720,000
1946 April 716,000
1941 May 713,000
1978 April 702,000
1956 August 676,000
1950 March 654,000
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics


Many of the months with the strongest job gains were from the 1940s and 1950s, when the U.S. labor market was much smaller, making the large gains even more impressive.

For example, the March 1946 increase of 942,000 jobs represented a 2.4 percent increase in total nonfarm employment in just one month, while the 313,000 jobs in February represented an increase of just 0.2 percent.

Steel Tariffs and Jobs

The president boasted that “a lot of steel mills are now opening up” because of the tariffs he announced on imported steel and aluminum. Some companies have announced they would reopen shuttered plants. But the big picture of the impact on jobs is likely to be mixed, experts say.

While domestic steel companies would benefit from the tariffs, other industries, such as those using imported steel, would be at a disadvantage.

Trump, March 10: They have been talking a little bit about steel over the last little while, haven’t they? And we are saving the steel. And a lot of steel mills are now opening up because of what I did. And not all of my friends on Wall Street love it, but we love it because we know what it does. Many plants have just announced, over the last few days, that they are expanding, opening. Steel is back. It’s going to be back, too. Steel is back. And aluminum is back. Going to be back.

The Trump administration announced on March 1 that it would impose tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on imported aluminum to aid domestic producers. A week later, the final White House proclamation included temporary exemptions for Canada and Mexico and the possibility for other countries to also get exemptions. The tariffs go into effect March 23.

As a result of the tariffs, U.S. Steel said it would reopen a Granite City, Illinois, mill that would employ 500 workers. Republic Steel said it could reopen a plant in Lorain, Ohio, and employ 1,000. And Century Aluminum Co. said it would add 300 jobs at a plant in Kentucky.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that some companies, including Alcoa, had already announced expansions before the tariffs, but the president’s support for such measures played a role. “Steel and aluminum prices have risen recently on higher domestic demand and piecemeal tariffs against producers in other countries including China, as well as Mr. Trump’s support for broader tariffs,” the Journal said in a March 7 article.

However, that article also noted that other companies weren’t pleased. California Steel Industries said the tariffs would be harmful. That company, like a Russian-owned plant in Farrell, Pennsylvania, imports steel slabs to roll into sheets. So the costs of that imported steel would go up.

Reuters reported in a March 9 story: “Bob Miller, Chief Executive Officer of NLMK’s U.S. unit, said if his company’s customers refuse to accept a 25 percent price hike as a result of the tariffs, nearly 1,200 workers could eventually lose their jobs – and the ones in Farrell would be the first to go when supplies of imported slabs run out.” The Farrell plant employed 780 workers.

And companies that use steel and aluminum in their products — including automakers and home appliance manufacturers — are also concerned about the impact of higher prices for those metals.

In a March 5 report, The Trade Partnership, a consulting firm, estimated that the tariffs could increase jobs in metal industries by 33,464, but decrease jobs in other industries by 179,334. That’s a net loss of 146,000. That was before the final White House proclamation, which included exemptions for Canada and Mexico.

On March 12, The Trade Partnership released a new analysis that removed Canada, Mexico and Australia, and factored in retaliation by U.S. trading partners. That analysis estimated a net loss of nearly 470,000 jobs.

Chad P. Bown, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, wrote in a March 9 op-ed that “whether Canada and Mexico are eventually hit remains a very important unknown—they are America’s first and fourth largest foreign suppliers of the metals, respectively.”

The exemption is an attempt to add some pressure to the negotiations between the countries on the North American Free Trade Agreement, Barry Bosworth, a senior fellow in the Economic Studies Program at the Brookings Institution, told FactCheck.org in an email. “It is a big exception, but just for a short period.” he said.

Bosworth expects the net effect of the tariffs on total jobs to be “near zero.”

“In the past, it has been difficult to give precise measures of the effect because so many other things change,” he told us. There’s also a competitive gain for car importers that won’t pay a higher price for steel compared with domestic automakers. “I think it will help foreign producers of products with a large steel content (autos, appliances, and construction machinery).”

Gary Clyde Hufbauer, a nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, expects that “no more than 10,000 jobs would be created in the steel and aluminum industries,” but at least triple that number of jobs would be lost, “sprinkled through the economy.”

He notes that stories about steel companies announcing job creation are “very visible,” while job losses throughout the economy “will be far less visible” and not as easy to pinpoint.

Repeats on Trade, Wages, War and More

No Trump speech would be complete without a list of false and misleading statements that we have repeatedly debunked.

“We spent $7 trillion in the Middle East over 17-year period.”

Trump has repeated versions of this claim numerous times in the past several months without getting it right. This speech was no exception. The U.S. has not spent $7 trillion fighting wars in the Middle East. The Department of Defense says the cost “for the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria” through fiscal year 2018 was an estimated $1.52 trillion.

During the campaign, Trump used a $6 trillion estimate, citing a Reuters article about a report by Boston University Political Science Professor Neta C. Crawford for the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Crawford’s estimate included amounts spent in the U.S., not just money spent in the Middle East, and it included future costs, not just money already spent. In an update published last year, Crawford said U.S. military spending in the Middle East “and the additional spending on Homeland Security, and the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs since the 9/11 attacks,” has cost $4.3 trillion in current dollars through fiscal year 2017, and will cost more than $5.6 trillion through the year 2056.

“Wages went up a little bit. You haven’t had wages go up in 19 years. Wages are starting to go up.”

It’s true that wages have risen under Trump. As we’ve reported before, real, inflation-adjusted wages rose 1.1 percent during the first 11 months of his term for all workers. Average weekly earnings dipped in January 2018, although they remained higher (by 0.62 percent) than January 2017, when Trump took office. The president went too far, though, in claiming that wages haven’t gone up in 19 years and are only now “starting to go up.” As we’ve written before, wages for all workers increased 4.1 percent during President Obama’s eight years.

“[Y]ou know, we have a big deficit with Canada too.”

As we wrote earlier this month, the U.S. had a trade surplus in goods and services of nearly $2.8 billion with Canada in 2017. The U.S. has not had a trade deficit with its neighbors to the north since 2014.

Trump is likely basing his claim on the fact that the U.S. buys more goods from Canada than it sells to Canada. However, this deficit in goods is more than offset by a surplus in the sales of services (such as travel, transportation and intellectual property). As we’ve noted before, Trump has a habit of ignoring services when discussing U.S. trade.

“We have a trade deficit of almost $800 billion a year.”

Trump makes a similar misstatement here, as he has in the past, referring only to the deficit in goods. When the surplus for services is factored in, the U.S. had a total trade deficit of $568 billion in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We passed the biggest tax cut in the history of our country.” 

There have been larger cuts as a percentage of gross domestic product and in inflation-adjusted dollars. The new tax law would cost $1.46 trillion over 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said that an even more expensive plan previously proposed by Trump would have only been the eighth largest tax cut as a percentage of gross domestic product, and it would have been just the fourth largest cut in inflation-adjusted dollars. CRFB said the tax cut in 1981 under President Ronald Reagan, at 2.9 percent of GDP, is the largest in history. “If President Trump wanted to pass a tax cut that exceeds the record 2.9 percent of the economy in 1981, it would cost roughly $6.8 trillion over ten years,” CRFB wrote.

— by Eugene Kiely, Robert Farley and Lori Robertson, with Thomas Nowlan